Mixing Vocals in the Box – Tricks to Get that Hit Sound

Author: Tomas Morton | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

When I was starting out in record production, I had the chance to shadow an incredible, multi-platinum, Grammy-winning producer. He shared a piece of wisdom that has stuck with me throughout my career, “When you’re creating hit songs, it’s all about the vocal – everything else is just window dressing.”

Sure, it might sound a bit oversimplified, but I totally get what he meant. Legends like Pharrell, Clive Davis, and even the great Quincy Jones have echoed similar sentiments.

It all starts with a fantastic song, but the magic really happens when the vocals bring it to life. So, how do you achieve that crisp, present vocal sound that stellar producers like Max Martin, Dr. Luke, and Jack Antonoff master so well?

You might think it’s impossible without an expensive analog signal chain, especially if you’re judging by the glamorous Instagram snaps of artists like Adele and Taylor Swift in the studio. But remember, that’s just the tracking part.

These photos show the artist in the booth with a fabulous tube mic and the producer at an SSL board surrounded by all the outboard gear you can imagine. But what they don’t show are the engineers who mix these vocals afterward.

So, is it possible to achieve that high-end polished sound purely digitally? You might be surprised to learn that many Grammy-winning mixers do just that.

Here are a few tried-and-true tricks I’ve picked up over the years.

Tricks To Get that Hit Sound – Plugins and Methods!

Comping

The first step to achieving an exceptional vocal performance is selecting the best takes. It may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often engineers have to redo vocals due to poor edits, incoherent words from different takes, or even missing words.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with vocal comping, but if you’re just starting out, it involves creating one master take from several different vocal takes. With a modern DAW, it’s relatively straightforward to select and move audio into one master “comp” take.

The challenging part is deciding which pieces to choose – this requires skill and a good ear. My tip is to opt for takes that feel natural and are full of energy.

You’ll see in the next section that it’s better to have a take that’s full of life and flows well, rather than one that’s perfectly in tune. Tuning can be adjusted, but you can’t fake energy.

Of course, you can enhance things with exciters and compression, which we’ll also discuss, but it’s not the same as the natural delivery of a good vocal. So keep an eye out for that!

Tuning

Can you recall the days when AutoTune was just a newborn on the scene, and tuning was looked upon as a sort of taboo? It almost seemed like a commentary on a singer’s skills.

I remember, in my early days of working in studios, we’d discreetly wait for the singer to leave the room before we’d start tuning. It would be too awkward for them to listen to their solo track being tuned.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find singers themselves asking for real-time AutoTune, even for laying down their initial vocals. They believe it adds a cool factor.

Unless it’s a hip-hop track or something where that T-Pain vibe of AutoTune fits, I’m a bit hesitant to do so. It somehow seems to disconnect them from the raw energy of their take.

But if they’re really keen on it, what I do is add a touch of AutoTune for them to track. Then, once I start comping, off goes the autotune and on comes a program called Melodyne.

A whole lot of seasoned engineers would agree when I say, Melodyne is your go-to for the most natural, unobtrusive form of tuning.

What sets Melodyne apart is that it offers more than just tuning. It lets you finely split the notes in a singer’s voice, helping them smooth out any melody slurs and vibrato issues they might be facing.

I’ve even used Melodyne’s formant features to give a more mature tone to a younger singer’s voice.

This formant feature is often overlooked, but take it from me, it’s a game changer. It’s like adding a dash of raspiness or huskiness to the voice, or the reverse – making the voice sound lighter, brighter, and younger.

It’s particularly handy when, let’s say, the singer has a dry or sore throat. So, do give the formant tool a whirl, I’d highly recommend it.

De-Noising

Once you’re satisfied with the vocal takes and have all the material you need, you’re ready to start the cleanup. This involves removing breaths, silences, ambient noises, and all those little things that can distract from the main attraction – the vocals. It’s like tidying up before a big party.

For those of you who might be new to cleaning up vocals before adding an EQ or compression, I recommend using Izotope RX 10. It’s a wizard when it comes to clearing up noisy vocals.

You know those pesky air conditioner hums or computer fan noises that sneak into your recording? Izotope RX 10 is great at making those disappear.

EQ and Compression Combos

We’ve made it through the production phase, and we’re now in the mix phase of our operation. Sounds exciting, right? One of the first things that stands out in hit vocals is the irresistible high-end that many of these records have.

I remember scratching my head, trying to figure out how they achieved that superb high-end. Then, I stumbled upon mastering Tube EQs like the Manley Massive Passive and the Avalon VT-737.

You might be wondering, what makes them different from other more traditional or vintage EQs? They have a high shelf band that goes beyond the normal human frequency range.

The Manley goes up to 27 kHz, while the Avalon has a 32 kHz band.

You might be thinking, “If the human ear can only hear up to 20 kHz, then what’s the point?” Well, it’s all about the overtones and harmonics that exist in these bands. This is what hit engineers and producers refer to as the “air” band.

There are other frequencies that can enhance your vocal sound. Apart from these two plug-ins, which by the way are masterfully modeled by Universal Audio, I’m a big fan of the API Vision Channel.

When it comes to compression, my go-to compressors for vocals are also classics. I stick with Manley using their appropriately named VoxBox, and I’m quite fond of the vintage 1176.

The trick with compression during the EQ and vocal stage of the mix is to add presence, grit, and color, and to boost more than just controlling the levels. We’ll handle the levels later.

HF Saturation (Exciters) and Tape Emulation

As you’re boosting, particularly with those high-end EQ and preamp emulations, you might notice things getting slightly crispy, even teetering on the edge of distortion. Be mindful here, it’s easy to overdo it, or as we might say, over-bake it.

Trial and error, along with experience, will be your best friends here. A lot of what you’re adding in the tube EQ and tube compression phase are second-order harmonics, which tend to be brighter.

Now, the clever part is contrasting that with darker 3rd order harmonics, which are abundant in tape emulations. One of my favorites is the Universal Audio Fatso, a brilliant emulation of a tape machine processor.

But it has this super cool feature that goes beyond tape, their “Warmth” circuit. Think of it as a high-frequency compressor of sorts.

What I enjoy doing is dialing in some high-frequency saturation by adding extra EQ and maybe some harmonics with plug-ins like the SPL TwinTube modeled by Plugin Alliance.

Then, I can dampen all that with a tape emulation. If I’m not using the UAD Fatso, I also like the Softube Lil’ FrEq, which has a similar circuit since they’re both made by the same company, Empirical Labs.

De-essing

If you’ve followed all the steps, you should now be listening to a beautifully modern vocal sound. Don’t forget to give a little extra love to the 6 to 7 kHz range, known as the sibilance zone.

If it hasn’t been smoothed out by the tape emulation and warmth circuit already, a de-esser can be your best friend. It’s there to tame those cheeky ‘esses’ that often trigger sibilance.

There’s a wealth of amazing de-esser plugins to choose from. Personally, I can’t get enough of the Sonnox SuprEsser and the Oeksound Soothe 2.

Controlled Limiting

Getting your vocals to sound completely professional and ready for the hit charts is just a step away! The final touch is a smidge of controlled post-limiting. Think of it as a shortcut to not having to ride the automation volume fader on the vocal track.

Remember, we don’t want to squash the life out of your vocals, so I’d recommend using a top-notch mastering limiter like the Sonnox Limiter or Waves Renaissance Axx.

What you can do is just set it to trim off the peaks and then give the overall level a boost. You’re essentially creating a ‘dynamic pancake’, if you will.

After that, you can adjust the levels of anything that still seems a tad too soft or too loud, and the limiter will handle the rest.

You’ll be amazed at how present and radio-ready your vocals sound if you’ve followed all the previous steps correctly. In today’s music, vocals are heavily compressed, especially in hip-hop, R&B, and pop records, so feel free to dial in all the limiting you need to get the sound just right.

Ambience Tricks –  The Secret Sauce!

Reverb

Sometimes, there’s something truly unique about dry vocals that give a cool, edgy sound. They really tie in with certain musical styles.

You’ll notice that Indie and rock artists often opt for a dry vocal sound, while pop goes for a touch of reverb to smooth things out a bit.

There’s no hard and fast rule about it, but if you’re aiming to use Reverb like a seasoned pro, it’s a good idea to use it as a send-and-return effect rather than directly applying a plugin onto the vocal track.

Most professional mixers, especially those using analog gear, usually route vocals through a real chamber or room to achieve a more natural Reverb. The delay time between the room send and return from the microphones is what gives it that realistic, professional sound.

I’ve noticed that some budding producers go overboard with the reverb, making the vocals too distant, which can make the track feel a bit outdated rather than current and cool.

My personal favorites when it comes to Reverb are Altiverb, which is great for reproducing natural spaces, and the UAD Lexicon 480L.

For those lush reverbs, I’m a big fan of the Eventide UltraReverb. It has some of those amazing 80s and 90s spaces used on some of my favorite records.

The secret is to use the pre-delay and EQ on the reverbs to tailor the sound specifically to your track. This is crucial because overusing Reverb can quickly lead to a muddy sound.

Delay

Delay may not be as commonly used as Reverb, but hey, it’s a pretty cool alternative! Artists like Thom Yorke from Radiohead and John Mayer find it particularly handy. They use the classic space echo from Roland to add that extra zing and ambience to their vocals.

Why is it so cool? Well, it’s a tape delay, which means it comes with some natural harmonics and distortion built right into the delay. It was a hit during the dance era of the 70s and 80s, as it gave a unique detuned type of delay.

The UA version of the space echo is pretty awesome and even comes with a neat spring Reverb emulation. It’s like having the best of both worlds!

Here’s a little trick with delays, especially tape delays: to crank up the intensity, just keep pushing it until it starts feeding back. That’s how you get some of those distorted endless repeats that you often hear in reggae and Indie rock music.

But guess what, it’s also super cool in modern Pop.

Pitch Effects and Wideners

Along with Reverb and Delay, engineers and producers use vocal widening and doubling effects to give a chorus that extra ‘oomph’. This makes the vocals pop and stand out beautifully.

There’s a technique called ADT, which stands for Artificial Double Tracking, and it’s been magical on so many records!

It was pioneered by the Beatles and then became a staple in many producers’ and engineers’ vocal bag of tricks.

Waves, for instance, has one of the best ADT-style plugins for vocals.

I find myself using it quite a bit, along with the Soundtoys Microshift Plugin, which is pretty similar to double tracking but acts more like a chorus plugin.

Oh, and there’s also this bundle called the Anthology Bundle, which has all the classic algorithms from their legendary hardware like the H3000. I mean, that vocal effect has been used on more hit records in recorded history than any other.

And here’s a secret ingredient that hit mixers like to use as well – Stereo Width Imagers and Enhancers, particularly for Background vocals. A plugin like Ozone’s Advanced Imager can do some serious wonders on your chorus vocals, making your song sound HUGE.

And trust me, a huge-sounding chorus is exactly what hit producers and platinum artists are hoping for!

Avatar photo

About Tomas Morton

Tomas is a record producer, engineer, and synthesizer enthusiast based in Pasadena, CA. He received training at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, CA. When not in his studio, he can often be found scouring garage sales or Craigslist ads for vintage gear treasures.

Leave a Comment